Help me learn how to interview people.
January 1, 2010 8:22 PM   Subscribe

What are some good books/articles/websites about learning how to successfully interview people for written publications and newscasts?

Any kind of suggestion is welcome.
posted by OrangeSoda to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

Response by poster: Is it worth taking some Journalism classes?
posted by OrangeSoda at 9:29 PM on January 1, 2010

Sorry I can't refer you to a site, but I can give you a tip, at least for interviews that are primarily friendly and informational. I've been interviewing writers for years for the Evergreen Radio Service in Seattle, and once I stumbled on this, I've gotten nothing but wonderful interviews, even from difficult people. ***The secret, Grasshopper, is to start out with a question, then listen to the answer and ask a new question based on the answer.*** And on and on that way. Simple, huh? And unbelievably powerful. Almost every serious interviewer seems to prepare a list of questions, and then asks them one by one by one. The writer answers each one, but somehow the life gets sucked out of the interview. And basing questions on answers, or ideas sparked by answers, can lead you to some very interesting places. Of course, if you're trying to get the Truth out of somebody, I'm sure there are better techniques.
posted by kestralwing at 10:20 PM on January 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Kestralwing is right. Listen, and respond. Be genuinely curious. The worst interviewers are those who stick to script at all times and miss opportunities for fascinating follow-up questions.

Technique-wise, most any journalism book or class will give you a sense of how to do an interview. After that, like any skill, your best bet is to read/listen to/watch the work of other journalists or biographers. Then find interviews with famous interviewers to glean their tips. And of course, practice practice practice.

Some general/random suggestions:
- remember the classic questions - who/what/where/when/why. Especially relevant for event-based or newsy interviews, but useful in other situations, too.
- Check and double-check the spelling of the interviewee's name. Find out that person's professional title and if it's too ambiguous, get them to ok a clearer one. Get interviewee's phone number so that you can fact-check later, if necessary.
- For print, develop your own shorthand, and record interviews as a back-up. If possible, don't depend on recordings. Transcription is (IMHO) sometimes necessary but usually a time-consuming pain in the ass. Better to make sure your understanding of the subject/facts is clear while you're doing the interview, and save the recording for double-checking exact quotations/figures/etc.
- If the topic is over your head, don't be afraid to ask for a second and third and fourth explanation. You will feel like an idiot, and that's ok. Just don't ever go away from an interview with a fuzzy understanding of the topic at hand, assuming you will sort it out later from your notes. You won't, and you'll have to call the person back for a fifth explanation and feel like even more of an idiot.
- If the interviewee doesn't speak the language of your audience (say they're too political/scientific/office jargony/etc), stress that you want to explain their very interesting work/beliefs/study/etc to readers, viewers or listeners who don't have the same vocabulary. Ideally it's about a sort of translation, not simply dumbing-down.
- If it's an on-air interview, remember that it's about them, not you. It's easy to fall into the habit of trying to impress cool interview subjects by attempting to sound cool yourself, but unless you have your own following and can speak knowledgeably about the subject, this is often not so cool for listeners.

That was pretty much a mishmash of stuff off the top of my head. But seriously, read a book or online guide, listen to and read good interviewers, and practice. That's really the gist of it. (From personal experience, I've reached a point where I can coax all but the dullest of people into a decent conversation, even if it means pulling an endless stream of questions out of my brain. It took a few years to reach that point, and if I worked at it for a few more I imagine I'd get better. On the downside, constant interviewing can make casual smalltalk start to feel like work...)
posted by nicoleincanada at 9:31 AM on January 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

I really liked Sound Reporting: An NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production.

It's not all about interviewing and its geared toward radio, but I found it to have really valuable advice on all kinds of journalism stuff.
posted by chris p at 2:52 PM on January 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Some pretty sound advice on here, esp nicoleincanada! Thank you loves.
posted by OrangeSoda at 5:39 PM on January 2, 2010

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